In Rockridge, a Rarefied Crime: Flower Poaching 

Unprosecuted because it's not a high priority, the crime can nonetheless be fatal.

Spring has sprung in Oakland's beautiful Rockridge district, and the front-yard gardens that are the pride of so many homeowners there are in full bloom. But the seasonal bounty comes with a price in this affluent neighborhood. For here a rarefied criminal act goes underreported: flower poaching.

For decades, Rockridge residents have awoken to evidence that nighttime flower poachers have raided their street-side gardens for fragrant lilacs, roses, and hydrangeas. Whole bushes have been ripped from the ground in the wee hours. The poachers don't stop there, clipping entire branches from Japanese maples and — most sought-after at this time of year — the regionally scarce dogwood blooms that last just a few weeks. The trees are often left mutilated. Some have even been taken up by the roots and carried away whole.

Victims guess flower poaching is a black-market enterprise for small-time crooks looking to make a quick dollar. Much like stolen iPods and cell phones, which fetch a decent resale value on the black market, the plants have supposedly been recognized at local retailers and among curbside merchants' sundries. While community members say they've made crime reports to the Oakland Police Department for years, local cops have yet to nab a single poacher.

Despite a flurry of complaints that crop up on community-run Internet message boards as regularly as hay fever, each spring the issue is pushed aside for Oakland's more serious crime concerns. Even in Rockridge, stolen flowers don't stand up to budget crises, grand theft, and gun violence. So the crime goes mostly unreported — and the criminals unfettered in their illicit trade.

Nora, a fourteen-year resident of lower Rockridge, has a glorious Kentucky dogwood in the front yard of her home, along with a couple of young Japanese maples and a large, healthy hydrangea bush that blooms each summer. Dogwood species flourish on the East Coast and in the South, but trees like Nora's are relatively rare in this climate, making its brief springtime bloom the pride of her small garden, where her two children play. Neighbors re-route their daily strolls this time of year just to catch a glimpse of its bright, white clustered flowers.

But Nora, a perennial flower-poaching victim, derives no such joy from her tree. "Every time I look at the tree in bloom it breaks my heart because I know it's going to be poached," she said, standing in the dappled light beneath her dogwood's full-blossomed splendor on a recent Saturday morning. She caressed the tree's scars, some years old now but still visible to the naked eye. "It's just a really ugly shape," she said with a sigh.

Nora, who asked not to be identified with her last name so that she would not increase her risk of theft, remembers well the first morning she walked outside to find the telltale signs of a violent poach. Dogwood blossoms were scattered across the grass; gaping and seemingly random wounds dotted the trunk. Since that morning more than a decade ago, "we're just hoping it will grow back," she said. Hacked dogwood limbs damage a tree severely, and blooming branches can take years to regenerate. While many dogwood owners might clip a small branch or two each season to adorn their dining room table, Nora never does, for this very reason. She recently refused a request from her own mother for just a slight trimming.

After filing several police reports over the years, Nora and her husband decided to take matters into their own hands, installing a trip-wire along the narrow entry to the yard. Each night, they suspend a metal wire between two short posts at a height of about six inches. Awaking some mornings to find nearby tulips "scrunched" and the wire unlatched — but no dogwood blossoms scattered — the couple believe their poacher-preventative measure has been successful. And this year, the tree has yet to be molested, she reports.

Others haven't been so lucky. During the week of April 13, two separate Rockridge dogwoods were poached. One of those — a six-foot dogwood — was stripped of 80 percent of its blooming branches, according to a neighbor. The tree, which belongs to homeowners who were out of town during the poach, will likely die.

This story is common around lower Rockridge, where foot traffic is heavy and front yards are typically less than fifteen feet deep off the sidewalk. West of College Avenue, it's hard to find a solid block of houses without poaching tales that go back decades. Research for this story — door-to-door interviews and solicitations on popular local message boards — returned dozens of similar accounts from area residents. Poacher booty reportedly runs the gamut of all the fragrant and beautiful blooms the Bay Area climate can sustain. East of College, in upper Rockridge, no fewer than five separate dogwoods have been continually poached throughout the years. One attack on a baby tree proved fatal.

Residents have dreamed up preventive methods including installing security cameras, painting branches bright colors to dissuade reselling, leaving visible lamps and overhead lighting on all night, contracting with private security companies, and installing wireless sensors set to activate sprinklers. Some have requested more frequent police patrols at night.

While Nora would like to see law enforcement crack down on this crime, she knows Oakland police have bigger fish to fry, with higher-value burglaries and robberies a constant problem in the neighborhood. Just a few weeks ago, Nora's fourteen-year-old son was held up for his cell phone at gunpoint, not three blocks from the family's home. So the flowers become less of a concern.

"What can you do?" Nora asked. "It's city living."

Officer Patrick Gerrans has served the Rockridge district as its problem-solving officer for the past year and a half. As PSO, Gerrans acts as a liaison between the police department and area residents, attending monthly Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meetings, where residents voice their concerns over area crime.

With that résumé, Gerrans should be something of an expert on flower poaching. But before receiving an interview request for this story, he had not heard of a single instance of this crime. Flower poaching has yet to be made a priority at NCPC meetings, longtime community activists report.

Gerrans said the regular community concerns are thefts, robberies, and burglaries on and around College Avenue. He guessed he hadn't been briefed on reports of flower poaching because they get lost in the mix of the hundreds of similar minor theft reports the department receives from Rockridge. "In any nice neighborhood you tend to see more robberies and burglaries than in other parts of the city," Gerrans said.

According to statistics obtained from the police department, during a recent seven-day period just one vehicle theft, one burglary, and one act of vandalism were reported in the half-mile scrim around the Rockridge BART station. From mid-March to mid-April, twelve thefts, seven burglaries, and nine vehicle thefts were reported in the same area, along with several cases each of assault and vandalism, and one of arson.

Gerrans said that a "crime of opportunity" like flower poaching is difficult to fight. "It's hard to plan out where a guy's going to be and where he's going to commit his crime," he said. Enforcement challenges only multiply during spring and summer's clement climes, when foot, car, and bicycle traffic increases significantly around the commercial stretch of College and minor thefts tend to spike. And since flower poachers work at night, the police's capacity to dissuade them through increased presence is reduced.

In the local shops where the stolen flowers might end up there's no evidence of poaching, and a strong ethic against it. Julia Lojo owns Market Hall's Bloomies flower shop, where she has worked for more than 22 years.

"I feel quite strongly about this," an apron-clad Lojo said, adding a few last young blooms to a blown-glass vase, with a dogwood branch providing the centerpiece for the arrangement. A home gardener herself, Lojo said she abhors the act of poaching. "It's just devastating to come out and see everything stripped."

As long as she has been in the neighborhood, Lojo has listened to customers' poaching horror stories. She said she buys her dogwood trimmings in bundles of five small (two- to three-foot long) branches, which cost her anywhere between $12.50 and $17 wholesale. With the rare blooms coming at that premium price, one can imagine flower shop owners might jump at dogwood bargains — maybe even be willing to turn a blind eye to a dubious source. "People with bad habits" have approached her in the past, offering small batches of magnolias and other flowers for sale out of their cars for a quick $20. But Lojo said she won't do business with them.

Instead, she buys exclusively from San Francisco Wholesale Flower Mart, a consortium of about fifty growers and buyers, all of whom own their businesses, carry business licenses, and can tell you with confidence where it comes from, she said. And while she most prefers to buy locally grown materials, Lojo's dogwoods currently come from Oregon, and her hydrangeas (a summer bloom in the Bay Area) from Colombia.

With not a single arrest on the books for flower poaching, the profile of the criminal perpetrating these strange acts is elusive. Are Rockridge's poachers expert small-time crooks, dialed into some complex black-market commerce that subverts the checks and balances of resale law? Or are they fine-flower hoarders, stealing all the blooms they can for some personal use? Simple vandals? Is this flower laundering, or outright flower marauding?

Victims claim to have recognized their garden growths for sale at BART stations, and in nearby restaurant displays, but there's no evidence of widespread reuse in Rockridge, where relations between local residents and retailers tend to be civil. The crime scenes indicate the acts of poaching are committed by flower amateurs, with no calm, and in the dead of night. Often flowers are inexpertly cut or, in the case of Nora's dogwood, left in such poor condition the knowledgeable criminal would have little hope for next year's score.

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